The Roman soldier handled Perpetua roughly. There was no question who was in charge. He took her before the Captain to be questioned and then to the Procurator. The procedure was simple. He asked her one question three times: “Are you a Christian?” If she denied being a Christian she would be made to prove her fidelity to the Roman religious establishment by swearing allegiance to Caesar as a god and by pouring out a drink offering. If, however, she answered incorrectly, i.e., were she to answer that she was indeed a Christian, then she would be threatened with punishment, exhorted to repent of her Christian profession and to affirm the Roman cultus. If she persisted, she would be convicted of impiety and taken to be put to death in the nearby circus where she would be attacked and killed by animals for the amusement of the public. Perpetua confessed Christ and refused to recant. She was beaten with rods and taken to the circus for execution of the sentence.
The Crisis Of Conscience
Christians in the first two centuries after the close of the apostolic age lived a perilous earthly existence. Mostly they kept to themselves. They were not out doing door-to-door evangelism. Indeed, the location and time of Christian worship services was typically a closely guarded secret. Services were held early on Sunday, in out of the way places. Those in the community who knew about their existence thought that the new religion might be some sort of death cult—there was supposed to be much interest among the Christians in the disgusting Roman spectacle of crucifixion and in tombs. Other rumors circulated that suggested that the Christians murdered infants and were cannibals. The most infuriating thing, however, about the Christians was that they stubbornly refused to affirm the established religion. The consensus was that the Christians were “haters of humanity.”
Among those who, like Perpetua, who confessed Christ unto death were given the title of martyr, i.e., witness. The were confessors, i.e., they confessed Christ (Matt 10:32). The status of the martyrs was not in doubt, though it would not be long before a cult would develop around the martyrs. There was a second group, however. They were called “the lapsed” (lapsi). Faced with public humiliation, torture, and a brutal death, some Christians “lapsed” as it was put. They fell. They did not confess Christ unto death. Indeed, under suspicion of being a Christian they were required publicly to renounce Christ, to swear allegiance to Caesar, and to seal their allegiance with a sacrifice.
Those who lapsed scandalized the church. Should they, after confessing their sin, be forgiven and be re-admitted to the church? This was not an easy question for the early church. Some concluded that it was the unforgivable sin. During the Decian persecution (c. AD 250), however, Cyprian, the senior of pastor of the church in Carthage, Cornelius, the senior pastor in Rome, and Dionysius, the senior pastor in Alexandria, ruled that lapsing was not the unforgivable sin. They re-admitted penitent lapsi. The Novatiationists, followers of a presbyter in Rome who had disputed Cornelius’ election, however, strongly disagreed with this decision and they caused a schism over it. Ultimately, the Novatianists were required by the Synod of Nicaea (AD 325) to submit to the church and some never did.
The case of the lapsed (lapsi) is instructive for the post-Covid church. To be sure, the challenges faced by the church after Covid are not the same as those faced by the ancient church but there are certain parallels. There are those who have taken what we might call a quasi-Novatianist position toward those who submitted to the Covid regulations. It is not difficult to find rhetoric characterizing as compromisers (or worse) those congregations that suspended services (even briefly), met outside, who asked members to wear masks, or who otherwise cooperated with the Covid regime. Most pastors can tell stories about losing families over disagreements about how the church should respond to Covid. Some talk about those who cooperated in any way with the Covid regime (whether early, middle, or late) in the same terms that the Novatianists used for those who lapsed during the Decian persecution.
To state the obvious, it is one thing to deny Christ, to denounce him, and even to offer a sacrifice to an idol and quite another to adapt to or adopt public health measures suggested or imposed by secular authorities. To suggest that they are morally equivalent is to over-estimate what the secular authorities asked or demanded of the churches in America and to underestimate what was demanded of Christians during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
This analogy should in no way be construed as support for the entire Covid regime. What seemed plausible and reasonable early on now, in retrospect, seems ill-advised, unwarranted, and largely mistaken but virtually no one knew that at the beginning. Certainly few pastors, ruling elders, and ecclesiastical assemblies were equipped to make public health decisions about novel Coronavirus. Obviously a great many mistakes were made. It is now agreed that outdoors is the best place to be and secular authorities shut down outdoor spaces. In some places, secular authorities showed their secularist bias against organized religion generally by categorizing churches as non-essential but categorizing clearly non-essential commercial enterprises as essential. Too many authorities were found flouting their own rules for the general public to take them seriously after a while. It is not too much to say that, in the late summer of 2022, the mask and vaccine mandates are more political theatre and political punishment than public health measures. The United States, absurdly, remains in a “state of emergency,” for transparently political reasons. Our politicians have discovered that they enjoy the emergency authority granted to their office and they do not seem minded to give it up nor do the legislative branches seem willing to do anything about.
For the purposes of this discussion, however, what matters is less about who was right about the public health and public policy questions than the standard of orthodoxy that some are applying to the church. The confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess no position on public health policy. Reformed Christians may disagree or even change their mind about how churches may or should respond to the Covid regime. This is a matter of prudence not orthodoxy.
Some of us (mea culpa) were too willing to trust the authorities when they said that these would be temporary measures. We may be thankful that the courts have overturned some of the more onerous policies and there are some major decisions yet to come (e.g., a class-action suit by sailors against the United States Navy’s covid-vaccine mandate). For more on this see the resource page below on Covid and religious liberty. Both public health authorities and secular government authorities generally have burned a good deal of trust and good will during the Covid regime. Americans have a strict contract with the government: the Constitution of the United States. We had better learn its terms and insist that it be respected and obeyed. If it is not it will be no one’s fault but ours. In that respect the Covid regime has had a salutary effect. It has been a wake up call and reminder of how quickly natural liberties can be usurped.
Our relationship with the secular civil magistrate is a kind of covenant of works. The terms of the covenant are “do this and live.” As long as the state lives within the terms of the covenant it is legitimate. As Christians, however, our relation to the church, i.e., to one another and to our pastors, elders, and deacons is not a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. Cyprian and the other pastors were right and Novatian and his followers were wrong. Lapsing, grave sin though it be, was not the unforgivable sin. Jesus knew that Peter would lapse, which he did even before Jesus died. Our Lord obeyed and went to the cross anyway. He knew that Peter would deny him again by refusing to eat with Gentiles. Yet, our Lord Jesus forgave Peter and used him mightily. He did not exclude Peter from the church or from grace.
Grace means free forgiveness. There is some debate and uncertainty about just how to translate Matthew 18:22. Is it “seventy times seven” or “seventy-seven times”? Either way the point is that grace is extravagant. It is unexpected. It is supernatural. It is extraordinary. One can only imagine the heartache and shame felt by those who, with the point of an Islamic sword at their throat, have denied their Savior who carried their cross up Golgotha but if that same Savior forgives them, so do we. He also forgives our transgressions. In truth none of us know what we would do if it came down to it. We pray for the grace and courage to give witness when it comes time.
The visible, institutional church is not an instrument or a battle ground in the culture war. The weapons of its warfare are neither political nor martial. Be deeply disgusted by what is happening in the West and in this country in particular but not toward your brothers and sisters who reacted differently than you to the Covid regime. If the third-century church had to receive and restore the penitent lapsed, then how much more ought we to love and receive each other whatever our differences over Covid?
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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